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Transcript from an interview with Jerry Pinkney

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Jerry Pinkney. The transcript is divided into the following clips:


Earlham Street

I grew up in Philadelphia, as a matter of fact was born and educated there. And I lived in a small house in the Germantown section which is a very old established section, and historic in many ways of Philadelphia.

And there were six children. I was the middle child: two older brothers and an older sister, and two younger sisters. And what was interesting about the experience, it was a small street, as a matter of fact it was a dead end street. And it was all populated by African-American families who had migrated from the south. When you would exit from Earlham Street, went right, it was a Jewish community, and when you went left it was an Italian community. But we didn't socialize at the time, so my growing up years has always been focused pretty much on that block.

But something else happened there. I was always curious about other cultures and I think it was sort of, the beginnings was that walking out of Earlham Street. And there was different, I think there were, you know, ethnic cultures and they too were sometimes recent arrivals to the states, so they had that sense of Italian culture and the Jewish culture. And I was fascinated, and I think in the beginning it made me think about a bigger, bigger world.

Both my mother and my father encouraged us to draw as we were growing up, so there was always some instrument to make a mark with, or there was paper, some materials that I could actually mark on.

And I think we all did, and we were encouraged. And I'm not quite sure where that came from because there were no artists in the family or in the neighborhood. I think back on it now and I smile because largely it had to do also with keeping us busy when I was growing up early on, we didn't have a television in our home. So we made things. And I think in so many ways the idea of creative play began at that time and that place, on 51 Earlham Street.

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Learning differently through art

It was very interesting, in growing up, at some point and I don't know exactly when in elementary school, but I discovered that I wasn't reading as well. And that my struggle getting through that Friday spelling test became really, truly apparent.

Although the interesting thing at that time is that I never felt it coming from my teachers. I don't remember being called a slow reader. But somewhere in that space there, I realized that I had a particular kind of struggle that my classmates did not.

There was not the use of the word, or I don't think the understanding about a learning difference, about dyslexia, and I never heard that word growing up. There were some special classes when teachers became aware later on the other end. My elementary school went to seventh grade. But those special classes were not where I had special attention to a particular problem or challenge for me. It was more with students who acted out. Now, as an adult I realize many of them might have had learning challenges, and as people who have learning disabilities they tend to act out, or bring another kind of attention to themselves.

I was not that child, but I was very much aware that, boy this struggle shouldn't be there. I didn't want it to be there. And not only that, but it took a tremendous amount of energy not knowing what to call it and not wanting it to be known.

Now, I learned earlier on that there was something about young Jerry and his ability to make pictures. Now, when I first grew passionate about holding a drawing instrument in my hand it was because of the sheer pleasure of it.

But then at some point I realized that not only was there pleasure but there was a sense of wholeness, of wellbeing, a calmness when I was actually making pictures. It was a world to me that no one could say I wasn't reading fast enough or that word wasn't correctly spelled.

What I got at the end of demonstrating a gift or talent was a sense that, of encouragement. And I was encouraged. I became the class artist for a number- especially those teachers who played, I think, a particular set of awarenesses and attention to this young boy who on a level struggled, but at the same time, demonstrated a willingness to learn.

I never really truly understood how at that age I made the connection that somewhere in that process of drawing that I was learning as well. And it might have been not that I was learning a particular subject but that, but I was using my mind, and I understood the value of taking in information or studying a subject.

So I went through elementary school with those two things in place, and I know it was the feeling of being able to accomplish something. In so many ways there was, something was special about me. That gave me a sense of balance. And I actually graduated from elementary school, Hill Elementary School, with honors, full honors. So again, I would like to, if I could, revisit that young Jerry at that time and figure out what made me decide with those challenges that I was going to try to make something of myself.

And interestingly, hearing myself say it, speak it, I know it was my mother. I never, ever at home got a sense that I was failing at something. It was always that I could do better, and I think in so many ways I think that was the catalyst to keep me working, because I had to work extremely hard.

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The struggle and reward of reading

The idea of being 70 and having to look back and still with the struggle or the energy that I have to muster up to focus to read, especially more so if I'm reading for pleasure. If I'm reading because I have to, that gives me the focus and the motivation that's important.

For the struggling or challenged reader, I think the first thing that the child has to do is recognize that it's a part of you, you know, that's something that they may have to live with. But it doesn't make you lesser as a student. It's a challenge.

It's very hard to tell children that sometimes that challenge could actually make you stronger. But in so many ways accepting it or owning it might just very well do that. At least it gives you a point that you know where you have to work. I mean, your own personal way of seeking out how you're going to, how it's going to be based in your own life.

The other part which I think most children perhaps get or hopefully get, is the understanding from their teachers and from their parents that this is a part of that particular child's life, but that it does not mean that that child will not become successful, or that that child as a slow learner will not enjoy reading.

I read novels. I struggle, it's a hard read for me. But at the end of that novel now, the sense of reward, of reading, of closing that book and hearing the sound, is so rewarding in so many ways. But for children I think the key too is that they, to feed them the kind of material, the kind of subjects that they're interested in.

So that takes, you know, work on a parent's part or the teacher's part, to find what is interesting. Is it trucks? Whatever. Is it history? And feed that child with things where they will pull something from it that's important to them, that fills them, that feeds them, and that they grow.

I tend to like poetry because in so many ways what poetry sets up for me is, at the end of the poem it's my image that I place on that poem. It's how I read the poem, and no one can tell me I'm not reading correctly.

So there's a certain sense of fulfillment and pleasure derived from me reading poetry. I also like music and poetry also can relate it and is a direct line to poetry in music. So poetry, music, rhythm, your own conclusion, your own sense of what I can take from that particular poem.

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Magic in the line

The medium choice for me today is watercolor, and except I wouldn't call myself a watercolorist. I'm often referred to in that matter. I'm really a drawer at heart, and I grew from early on. There were always, I think at times and places where the idea of painting was very attractive to me.

But I always went back to the idea of drawing, and it was the sense of line that when I think back on it, each day when I hold a drawing pencil in my hand, the response to me- it's almost like a new experience. But that really came to a kind of a fine point, if I could use that, when I was in college and I had an instructor in anatomy.

And we were drawing from the live model but there was also the understudy of anatomy. And he did something that I would never do today by the way, he would often times move the student aside from the easel and actually draw directly over your drawing to revise it or correct it.

However, there was such magic in his line and I was dazzled by it in that it had so much emotion and it could set up rhythm and a sense of speed that it captivated me. And it also reinforced my love of line.

And I think part of that was to see someone else use line and to realize this same tool in an artist's hand, or many artists with the same tool in their hands, could create a line that would express something about themselves or about the subject itself.

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Watercolor surprises

You know, the line is so important to my work and to my process that in searching for a medium where the line would still ring true and play a role in my images, I chose a transparent medium. And in the very beginning, Liquitex which has a water base and you can thin it down. I did some painting and some images using Liquitex.

But the watercolor, which really is the medium of choice for me, is still magical in many, many ways. Watercolor is most difficult to control. Now, that could be in one level or through one lens that's challenging. But through the other lens is the surprises, and what they sometimes call happy accidents, in that it's always in real time. It's always in the present time that you're working because you can't go back and sort of change as easily. It becomes important to me, and it allows me to be one with the medium.

I'm watching, there's no time to think about anything other than the properties of watercolor. And even the different colors have different properties. And to understand that and how to play off of that, it's almost in a sense interactive because you become one.

And the transparent quality, of course, allows me to keep the line in place and allow it to play its role. Or if I decide that less dependency on the line, I keep painting and painting until the weight of the watercolor actually pulls the line, makes it more subdued.

And I think that, you know, that also is of interest to me. But my safety blanket is the line. The solid line drawing, I'm able to be much freer, more experimental and take more risks with the medium itself.

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Telling the story through pictures

You know, I've always been passionate about detail, and then of recent they've been talking about visual literacy. And so, often times I've thought about in terms of what I do and the images that I make. And it does apply, but as I'm working none of that comes to mind.

What I'm doing with my work is, I'm talking about and speaking to those things that interest me. Detail interests me, the sense of discovery interests me. And it might be the working with the narrative, I began to understand the fact that leaving the illustrations also open enough for the reader to take some ownership in my images.

Again, a lot of that might have to do with the sense of the page turn. But the idea of bookmaking and the narrative all comes to play. But almost in an intuitive way, it's all organic, it's always trying to please that part of myself that wants to tell a story and tell it visually.

So, how readers respond and react and work, I'm not sure. That doesn't really enter in at the time. And it's the hope. But I always fall back on, what do I want to say, what story do I want to tell and how do I want to tell it, and who was my audience because I know also with working for children, that they're more open, more curious, more exciting about finding things.

And that does come into play, sure. But it's about what I find in my work. What do I hide? Well, usually I had things that are there in real life. I love the idea of when you see insects moving in and out of the foliage of my work, but I can go right back to standing in a field in North Carolina and peering down and it seemed as if the ground was moving because the insect life was so active. It felt that way.

And what I do in my work is, I go back to those experiences. And I'm telling you about it, but I'm telling you about it through my pictures.

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The subject tells me what to say

I consider my work really storytelling, and my craft, you know, the way I go about telling stories, is through a visual. And in order to tell that story and to tell it effectively, I've got to understand my craft, and I've got to develop my craftsmanship. I've got to develop my sense of color and mood, and all those things.

But why? Why, because I'm trying to tell a story that will convince the reader and pull the reader in. So that the- and I'm not sure how to say this, but because people might say, that can't be true- but is that the draftsmanship or the art trails the story, trails the subject. The subject tells me exactly what I should say in my pictures or how I go about those pictures, those images.

That's what speaks to me. And then I say, oh, you know, by the way I think I'll paint it. I think I'll put it into a visual form, a kind of visual landscape. But it's the subject. And what I'm saying also and what drives the sense that what can make my draftsmanship, what can make my understanding of what I'm doing richer and fuller. And how do I grow as an artist has a lot to do with how I can best tell that story.

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The Sweethearts of Rhythm

One of the projects that's being published this year is the Sweethearts of Rhythm where I collaborated with the poet and wordsmith, Marilyn Nelson. And the Sweetheart's about an all girl swing band that came out of Piney Woods, Mississippi.

And the story itself is magical. Piney Woods Day School was a school that sort of a number of private schools that sprung up during the turn of the century and after the Civil War to teach young African Americans basically a trade. And in order to keep those schools afloat the doors opened, they would form choral groups and bands that would locally tour and they would raise money. This particular band, swing band, the Sweethearts, went to national and international success.

And so it was thought that it would be a great combination to have the poet, Marilyn Nelson, talk about those Sweethearts through her poems, and that I would illustrate those poems and talk about the Sweethearts and its music through my art.

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Real, true portraits

One of the challenging things about the illustrating the Sweethearts, which I didn't think about in the beginning, is that they're real people. They had names. There were some portraits, most often publicity portraits where usually you saw the musician smiling at the camera.

So I didn't have on hand many photographs or reference on them actually playing the instruments. Now they did have a short film that was made so that was very helpful. So the challenge was to create portraits of musicians- by the way these women were incredibly beautiful- playing music yet at the same time speaking to their beauty, their resilience, their grit in a way that came through in my art. But also, to speak about the music itself. So the challenge was, in creating image, was how do I speak to those two pieces and actually there was even more pieces.

Recently I was in a jazz club in Columbia, South Carolina and I was watching musicians. And if you look at jazz or swing musicians they play in a sense of cool style. But the music itself is something completely different. It's joyful, it's colorful.

So that I had to find a way of also incorporating the energy and the color in music. And you notice in Sweethearts I've done something that I had not done before, and that's the use of collage. So all of those things meant for a very challenging work period on Sweethearts.

The research was incredibly, I think, intense, and actually worked with an assistant because of the fact that with 22 or some odd poems, each poem spoke about a, not only the musician but the times. And we look at that time, 1935 to 1945, and we look at what was going on.

Jim Crowe, World War II, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl with World War II and Japanese internment camps. Then on the other side I had Victory Gardens and Rosie the Riveters, which by the way to me, I always thought of Victory Gardens in the context of white folks, or Rosie the Riveter was always, was white. In my research, discovering that African Americans had Victory Gardens. That African Americans went to do work in those factories as well. And so that in so many ways was also what I wanted to celebrate. I wanted to celebrate the Sweethearts, I wanted to celebrate the music, but I also wanted to celebrate the history and the legacy of African Americans during that turbulent time.

Because in so many ways, even though there was Jim Crowe, whites and blacks were living the same lives. They had the same hardships, same joys. And maybe that's too why the swing was so popular, because that was a democracy. Everyone danced.

In the South, of course, they were, whites could not play with blacks on the bandstand that was also part of the, I guess, courageousness of the Sweethearts because they integrated. First with a white musician and then an Asian American, a Native American, a Hawaiian.

And it's actually kind of amazing. So our jobs, Marilyn and mine, was to bring all this together in some kind of continuity or some kind of symmetry or some kind of thread that connected all of those things and also spoke of the joy in the music.

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Good stories bring us all in

It's amazing when you see the age that often times I think publishers have to put on books. They'll say from three to six or six to nine, and the very fact that we talk about children's books. Well, children's books for children.

But for the artists and authors we really know that's not true. I think most of us feel that what we're doing is, we may be speaking about subject matter in a way that it perhaps is easier for children to understand, but when we are at our best what we are doing is fulfilling that need, but also telling stories that, you know, adults respond to. Or perhaps putting together an information in a way that would both attract children and adults.

I happen to find that it's absolutely more challenging in some way because what you have to do is think about those things that are important to you and what you might want to say to your audience. But at the same time if you believe that there's a certain set of aesthetics or a sense that your work has value as text and as art, that's speaking as an artist. And that works on any level, and you want your work to work on any level.

So certainly you have to put ages on a book so they know where to place it, but really, literature at its best really touches on us all. It brings us all in. And I think what my attitude towards what I do is that my audience is, certainly my main audience is children, but my art serves everyone.

And also, I want my art to serve me. And so in so many ways that's what drives my art. That's the engine. That I'm trying to do things that aesthetically it's pleasing. I'm trying to excite, I'm trying to get a hold of my reader.

Wait a minute, am I talking about children's books or adult books. It doesn't matter, it's the same devices that makes them successful.

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Tall tale heroes

I grew up in a household- my mother loved to read. And it was always interesting because she read stories, the classics, the Hans Christian Anderson stories. But also in the household, stories were told. The southern oral tradition of telling stories, and that's, you know, certainly where I first experienced and I'm pretty sure was hearing the legend of John Henry, and certainly the tales of Uncle Remus.

So I grew up with those two in the sense seemingly different pieces of literature, the classic story of the fairytale, the folktale. Most often times the fairytale. And then the folktales that came directly out of my roots.

So those two pieces were important to me. What I try to do also in my work- and this is for me- is to revisit that time, and revisit those stories that excited me when I was a young person. And as an older person it draws me directly to my mother or my father or hearing those stories told.

It takes me back to Earlham Street. That feels good. And brings pleasure and also energy to the work that I do. So I think what I'm doing is really responding to what was important to me. Those things that have stayed with me and that I can re-imagine.

There's also two voices: the European voice and also the African American voice. One voice, the European voice that always begins with once upon a time, and that once upon a time can go back. With the African American it's quite different, and in many ways there really isn't a once upon a time that takes you back too far.

So those stories are much more in a sense contemporary to me. They speak more directly to the struggles of African Americans during that time, especially with the Uncle Remus tales and post Civil War. And John Henry that was so necessary for me to have an African American tall tale hero in my life.

So those stories you see in my re-imagining and re-telling these stories is they also talk to you about my childhood, and those pieces that were important to me, and also the importance of storytelling. And I think if there's a sense of energy in my work and passion in the work, it's because I'm re-living many times pieces of my growing up years.

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The Lion and the Mouse

I recently published The Lion and the Mouse, and certainly that was also part of my growing up years. I must have perhaps been told the Aesop fables and I don't think they were read to us children. But I think they were always there.

And I think parents most importantly, thought about these fables really not as action packed adventure tales, but more about the morals. But they were an excellent way of speaking to children and giving them a sense of the right direction to go in.

And I think perhaps that was what my parents tried to do. I do remember the action packed fables and I remember the characters. There were a number of those fables that have stayed with me and I can call them up very, very easily and clearly, with almost images of these characters.

One of those fables was The Lion and the Mouse, and I think it's, it was certainly one of my favorites. And I think perhaps most of us could, if we're going to name a fable that really is, stands out, it very well might be The Lion and the Mouse.

And for me I responded to it in so many ways. I mean, who can not respond to the majestic lion. I think the lion plays a role in all of our lives as something that's strong. And there's something just magical about the image, especially the male lion with the mane.

The mouse. Think about how often we find the mouse in children's literature. What a cast of characters. The small mouse who accidentally finds himself on the back of a resting lion, and the lion which has the power to do whatever the lion chooses, decides that he would let the mouse go.

Not thinking about what way this act of, I guess kindness, how it might just be returned. The mouse who after returning to the nest all of a sudden hears a roar of a trapped lion and decides to lend his skill, the ability to chew through a rope, and its large heart to actually free the lion.

Now this is my first by the way, wordless book, and it did not start out, the intent was not for it to be wordless. As a matter of fact, I though that this story was so clear in my mind that I would actually start the process of doing thumbnail sketches and then I would add text later.

But since the story was so direct and clear, and it was after the thumbnail sketches and conversations with my editor. And it seemed to me everybody was reading the story without the text that I thought, why don't we play this out? Why don't we carry it further inasmuch as clarifying the pictures so that we could add the text. But also that we could see whether, in fact, it needed the text.

So the story is visually narratively driven, and I think that's what you find in it. Not only telling the story of the lion and the mouse, but also the story of what attracted me to Serengeti, the African Serengeti.

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The Serengeti

There was also a pull there and a need to talk about the beauty and fragility of that particular part of the world. And in many ways they kind of balanced out, you know, the power and the strength of the lion against the beauty and the expansiveness of the African Serengeti.

The mouse, small, somewhat fragile, almost in a way that needs to be protected. And I began to think about that in relationship to the images. So you find spreads that so speak to the vastness of the Serengeti. But I want you also to remember that it's also fragile and it needs to be taken care of.

I think clearly this spread of this, of the range of wildlife and also what I wanted to talk about was this, you know, the scale of the Serengeti and a sense of harmony. Here we see all the animals grazing together.

And that was important to me because I think the book does speak, and that's another part of the story, the moral. In order to do that, I wanted to in a sense bounce off this sense of vastness with this personal involvement, the reader with the central characters, the lion and the mouse.

And this is probably where it became most challenging because I wanted them to be anthropomorphic, but in a way that suggested the true nature and the true character of a lion, and a true nature and a true character of the mouse. And in doing so I had to straddle a fence between making them respond in a kind of a natural way, but the reader to understand what they were responding to.

And the process was simply drawing it over and over again. And very often times I would just stand in front of a mirror and sort of act out expressions which I thought conveyed what the animals where thinking at the time. And it was the challenge of that. It was also part of this book that was also the fun aspect of it.

Because once you arrive at your characters in a sense speaking what you want them to be speaking in terms of relating to the reader, it's almost a surprise. I mean, one of the things that this book afforded me that other books didn't was the sense of discovery.

The process itself of making these images was also my own sense of discovering what I felt the story was trying to say. It was the sense of curiosity and surprise when that lion spoke in a particular way that made me believe he was in a way acting out or speaking what he was experiencing at the time.

And you almost have to, as an artist inhabit, that animal, that creature which you have created, and you become one.

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A playful, peaceable kingdom

One of the things I've always tried to do in my work is be playful in a sense even though there's a lot of work to get to that point where it becomes playful. But also in thinking about my work as art have also tried to find ways to speak about art and its history and its legacy, and how I as an artist was influenced by artists in the past.

And I've done it a number of times in the way I applied my watercolor. But also in the course of the Lion and Mouse suggesting the history. And this is really in a sense a takeoff from an artist Hicks, and the painting is the Peaceable Kingdom.

And tell me how did I come about that, I'm not quite sure. It popped into my head that if I was thinking about this book, if I was thinking about harmony and animals getting along together, that his painting of the Peaceable Kingdom just spoke so clearly to that message. It's also when I think at harmony and I think about the importance of people relating to one another, that painting always comes to mind. And I think the artist himself was trying to speak to people getting along by using animals as stand in for people.

And in so many ways I think that I'm doing that with the lion and the mouse. That they become stand-ins for how we want to treat each other. So now, is this a message for children? Yes. Is this a message for adults? Yes.

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Stringing together the small ideas

One of the things that I've always struggled with as an artist in talking about

"Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks." — Dr. Seuss